Stories from Old English Poetry/The Pious Constance

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THE PIOUS CONSTANCE.

(FROM CHAUCER.)

ONCE upon a time the Emperor of Rome had a beautiful daughter named Constance. She was so fair to look on, that far and wide, she was spoken of as “ the beautiful princess.” But, better than that, she was so good and so saintly that everybody in her father’s dominions loved her, and often they forgot to call her “ the beautiful princess,” but called her instead, “ Constance the good.”

All the merchants who came thither to buy and sell goods, carried away to other countries accounts of Constance, her beauty, and her holiness. One day there came to Rome some merchants from Syria, with shiploads of cloths of gold, and satins rich in hue, and all kinds of spicery, which they would sell in the Roman markets. While they abode here, the fame of Constance came to their ears, and they some times saw her lovely face as she went about the city among the poor and suffering, and were so pleased with the sight that they could talk of nothing else when they returned home; so that, after a while, their reports came to the ear of the Soldan of Syria, their ruler, and he sent to the merchants to hear from their lips all about the fair Roman maiden.

As soon as he heard this story, this Soldan began secretly to love the fair picture which his fancy painted of the good Constance, and he shut himself up to think of her, and to study how he could gain her for his own.

At length he sent to all his wise men, and called them together in council.

“You have heard,” he said to them, “of the beauty and goodness of the Roman princess. I desire her for my wife. So cast about quickly for some way by which I may win her.”

Then all the wise men were horrified; because Constance was a Christian, while the Syrians believed in Mohammed as their sacred prophet. One wise man thought the Soldan had been bewitched by some fatal love-charm brought from Rome. Another explained that some of the stars in the heavens were out of place, and had been making great mischief among the planets which governed the life of the Soldan. One had one explanation and one another, but to all the Soldan only answered,—“All these words avail nothing. I shall die if I may not have Constance for my wife.”

One of the wise men then said plainly,—“But the Emperor of Rome will not give his daughter to any but a Christian.”

When the Soldan heard that he cried joyfully: “O, if that is all, I will straightway turn Christian, and all my kingdom with me.”

So they sent an ambassador to the Emperor to know if he would give his daughter to the Soldan of Syria, if he and all his people would turn Christian. And the Emperor, who was very devout and thought he ought to use all means to spread his religion, answered that he would.

So poor little Constance, like a white lamb chosen for a sacrifice, was made ready to go to Syria. A fine ship was prepared, and with a treasure for her dowry, beautiful clothes, and hosts of attendants, she was put on board.

She herself was pale with grief and weeping at parting from her home and her own dear mother. But she was so pious and devoted that she was willing to go if it would make Syria a good Christian land. So, as cheerfully as she could, she set sail.

Now the Soldan had a very wicked mother, who was all the time angry in her heart that the Soldan had become a Christian. Before Constance arrived in Syria, she called together all the lords in the kingdom whom she knew to be friendly to her. She told them of a plot she had made to kill the Soldan and all those who changed their religion with him, as soon as the bride had come. They all agreed to this dreadful plot, and then the old Soldaness went, smiling and bland, to the Soldan’s palace.

“My dear son,” she said, “at last I am resolved to become a Christian; I am surprised I have been blind so long to the beauty of this new faith. And, in token of our agreement about it, I pray you will honor me by attending with your bride at a great feast which I shall make for you.”

The Soldan was overjoyed to see his mother so amiable. He knelt at her feet and kissed her hand, saying,—“Now, my dear mother, my happiness is full, since you are reconciled to this marriage. And Constance and I will gladly come to your feast.”

Then the hideous old hag went away, nodding and mumbling,—“Aha! mistress Constance, white as they call you, you shall be dyed so red that all the water in your church font shall not wash you clean again!”

Constance came soon after, and there was great feasting and merry-making, and the Soldan was very happy.

Then the Soldaness gave her great feast, and while they sat at the table, her soldiers came in and killed the Soldan and all the lords who were friendly to him, and slaughtered so many that the banquet-hall swam ankle-deep in blood.

But they did not slay Constance. Instead, they bore her to the sea and put her on board her ship all alone, with provisions for a long journey, and then set her adrift on the wide waters.

Fancy her, tossing about on the wild sea, amid waves and winds, all calm and pale, with her little crucifix, which she always wore round her neck, folded close to her bosom. So she sailed on, drifting past many shores, out into the limitless ocean, borne on by the billows, seeing the day dawn and the sun set, and never meeting living creature. All alone on a wide ocean! drifting down into soft southern seas where the warm winds always blew, then driving up into frozen waters where green, glittering icebergs sailed solemnly past the ship, so near, it seemed as if they would crush the frail bark to atoms.

So for three long years, day and night, winter and summer, this lonely ship went on, till at length the winds cast it on the English shores.

As soon as the ship stranded, the governor of the town, with his wife, and a great crowd of people, came to see this strange vessel. They were all charmed with the sweet face of Constance, and Dame Hennegilde, the governor’s wife, on the instant, loved her as her life. So this noble couple took her home and made much

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of her. But Constance was so mazed with the peril she had passed that she could scarcely remember who she was or whence she came, and could answer naught to all their questionings.

While she lived with the good Hennegilde, a young knight began to love her, and sued for her love in return. But he was so wicked that Constance would not heed him. This made him very angry. He swore in his heart that he would have revenge. He waited until one night when the governor was absent, and going into the room are Dame Hennegilde lay with Constance sleeping in the same chamber, this wicked knight killed the good lady. Then he put the dripping knife into the hand of Constance, and smeared her face and clothes with blood, that it might appear she had done the deed.

When the governor returned and saw this dreadful sight, he knew not what to think. Yet, even then, he could not believe Constance was guilty. He carried her before the king to be judged. This King, Alla, was very tender and good, and when he saw Constance standing in the midst of the people, with her frightened eyes looking appealingly from one to another like a wounded deer who is chased to its death, his heart was moved with pity.

The governor and all his people told how Constance had loved the murdered lady, and what holy words she had taught. All except the real murderer, who kept declaring she was the guilty one.

The king asked her, “Have you any champion who could fight for you?”

At this Constance, falling on her knees, cried out that she had no champion but God, and prayed that He would defend her innocence.

“Now,” cried the king, “bring the holy book which was brought from Brittany by my fathers, and let the knight swear upon it that the maiden is guilty.”

So they brought the book of the Gospels, and the knight kissed it, but as soon as he began to take the oath he was felled down as by a terrible blow, and his neck was found broken and his eyes burst from his head. Before them all, in great agony, he died, confessing his guilt and the innocence of Constance.

King Alla had been much moved by the beauty of Constance and her innocent looks, and now she was proved guiltless, all his heart went out to her. And when he asked her to become his queen she gladly consented, for she loved him because he had pitied and helped her. They were soon married amidst the great rejoicing of the people, and the king and all the land became converted to the Christian faith.

This king also had a mother, named Donegilde, an old heatheness, no less cruel than the mother of the Soldan. She hated Constance because she had been made queen, though for fear of her son’s wrath, she dared not molest her.

After his honeymoon, King Alla went northward to do battle with the Scots, who were his foemen, leaving his wife in charge of a bishop and the good governor, the husband of the murdered Hennegilde. While he was absent Heaven sent Constance a beautiful little son, whom she named Maurice.

As soon as the babe was born, the governor sent a messenger to the king with a letter telling him of his good fortune. Now it happened this messenger was a courtier, who wished to keep on good terms with all the royal family. So, as soon as he got the letter, he went to Donegilde, the king’s mother, and asked her if she had any message to send her son.

Donegilde was very courteous and begged him to wait till next morning, while she got her message ready. She plied the man with wine and strong liquor till evening, when he slept so fast that nothing could wake him. While he was asleep she opened his letters and read all that the governor had written. Then this wicked old woman wrote to Alla that his wife Constance was a witch who had bewitched him and all his people, but now her true character became plain, and she had given birth to a horrible, fiend like creature, who, she said, was his son. This she put in place of the governor's letter, and dispatched the messenger at dawn.

King Alla was nearly heart-broken when he read these bad tidings, but he wrote back to wait all things till he returned, and to harm neither Constance nor her son. Back rode the messenger to Donegilde once again. She played her tricks over again and got him sound asleep. Then she took the king’s letter and put one in its place commanding the governor to put Constance and her child aboard the ship in which she came to these shores and set her afloat.

The good governor could hardly believe his eyes when he read these orders, and the tears ran over his cheeks for grief. But he dared not disobey what he supposed was the command of his king and master, so he made the vessel ready and went and told Constance what he must do.

She, poor soul, was almost struck dumb with grief. But she uttered no complaint, only she prayed to the blessed Virgin to take pity on her and take care of her poor little baby. Then. kneeling before the governor, she cried, with many tears,—

“If I must go again on the cruel seas, at least this poor little innocent, who has done no evil, may be spared. Keep my poor baby till his father comes back, and perchance he will take pity on him.”

But the governor dared not consent, and Constance must go to the ship, carrying her babe in her arms. Through the street she walked, the people following her with tears, she with eyes fixed on heaven and the infant sobbing on her bosom. Thus she went on board ship and drifted away again.

Now, for another season, she went about at the mercy of winds and waves, in icy waters where winds whistled through the frozen rigging, and down into tropical seas where she lay becalmed for months in the glassy water. Then fresh breezes would spring up and drive her this way or that, as they listed. But this time she had her babe for comfort, and he grew to be a child near five years old before she was rescued. And this is the way it happened.

When the Emperor of Rome heard of the deeds the cruel Soldaness had done, and how his daughter’s husband had been slain, he sent an army to Syria, and all these years they had besieged the royal city till it was burnt and destroyed. Now the fleet, returning to Rome, met the ship in which Constance sailed, and they fetched her and her child to her native country. The senator who commanded the fleet was her uncle, but he knew her not, and she did not make herself known. He took her into his owr house, and her aunt, the senator’s wife, loved her greatly, never guessing she was her own princess and kinswoman.

When King Alla got back from his war with the Scots and heard how Constance had been sent away, he was very angry; but when he questioned and found the letter which had been sent him was false, and that Constance had borne him a beautiful boy, he knew not what to think. When the governor showed him the letter with his own seal which directed that his wife and child should be sent away, he knew there was some hidden wickedness in all this. He forced the messenger to tell where he had carried the letters, and he confessed he had slept two nights at the castle of Donegilde.

So it all came out, and the king, in a passion of rage, slew his mother, and then shut himself up in this castle to give way to grief.

After a time he began to repent his deed, because he remembered it was contrary to the gentle teachings of the faith Constance had taught him. In his penitence he resolved to go to Rome on a pilgrimage, to atone for his sin. So in his pilgrim dress he set out for the great empire.

Now when it was heard in Rome that the great Alla from the North-land had come thither on a Christian pilgrimage, all the noble Romans vied to do him honor. Among others, the senator with whom Constance abode invited him to a great banquet which he made for him. While Alla sat at this feast, his eyes were constantly fixed upon a beautiful boy, one of the senator’s pages, who stood near and filled their goblets with wine. At length he said to his host,—“Pray tell me, whence came the boy who serves you. Who is he, and do his father and mother live in the country?”

“A mother he has,” answered the senator: “so holy a woman never was seen. But if he has a father I cannot tell you.” Then he went on and told the king of Constance, and how she was found with this boy, her child, on the pathless sea.

Alla was overjoyed in his heart, for he knew then that this child was his own son. Immediately they sent for Constance to come thither. As soon as she saw her husband, she uttered a cry and fell into a deep swoon. When she was recovered, she looked reproachfully at Alla, for she supposed it was by his order she had been so ruthlessly sent from his kingdom. But when, with many tears of pity for her misfortunes, King Alla told her how he had grieved for her, and how long he had suffered thus, she was convinced.

Then they embraced each other, and were so happy that no other happiness, except that of heavenly spirits, could ever equal theirs.

After this, she made herself known to the Emperor, her father, who had great rejoicing over his long-lost daughter, whom he had thought dead. For many weeks Rome was full of feasting, and merry-making, and happiness. These being over, King Alla, with his dear wife, returned to his kingdom of England, where they lived in great happiness all the rest of their days.


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